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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 10:33 GMT
Expert witness changes proposed
Image of Roy Meadow
Professor Sir Roy Meadow gave flawed evidence in the Clark trial

The NHS should provide a new service supplying medical experts for family law cases, the chief medical officer for England says.

Sir Liam Donaldson's proposals come amid unease about the role of medical witnesses in alleged child abuse cases.

He has suggested a new centralised system for providing expert medical witnesses to family courts.

He said the new teams would ensure experts were available, as many doctors have been put off by recent cases.

The groups of specialist doctors and other local NHS professionals will come together to improve the quality of the service by introducing mentoring, supervision and peer review.

We need to get the quality right, but we also need to make sure there are enough doctors prepared to take on this sort of work in the future
Sir Liam Donaldson, chief medical officer for England

Currently, solicitors take responsibility for sourcing expert witnesses.

But the more structured system, called the National Knowledge Service, has been designed to avoid the risk of reports for the courts being biased by the view of a particular individual, or a lack of expertise.

There would also be standards, aiming to guarantee the quality of work.

Sir Liam said the number of cases where there were problems with medical evidence were very small, but change was needed - partly because young doctors were now too intimidated to take on the essential work.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's something that younger doctors don't want to go into for a whole variety of reasons, including the very intimidating atmosphere that they perceive now surrounds this.

Quality

"So we need to get the quality right, but we also need to make sure there are enough doctors prepared to take on this sort of work in the future.

"What we want to see is competent medical experts and that's what we're aiming to do with this report."

But he stressed: "I'm not criticising the existing experts."

Sir Liam's study was commissioned in 2004, following a number of cases, such as those of Angela Cannings and Sally Clark - both initially convicted and then later cleared on appeal of killing their children - in which evidence given by experts such as Professor Sir Roy Meadow led to convictions which were later ruled unsafe.

Days after Mrs Cannings walked free from in 2003 the then Solicitor General Harriet Harman announced thousands of care orders in which expert evidence was decisive were to be reviewed under an inquiry which was also examining the convictions of 258 women for murdering their babies over the last decade.

I see this as a positive step forward in working towards the development of a larger pool of experts, within a framework that will also provide quality and cost control
Sir Ronald De Witt, chief executive of Her Majesty's Court Service

Sir Roy was struck off the medical register last year after the General Medical Council ruled he had "abused his position as a doctor" in giving the evidence he did.

The doctor won a High Court appeal against the GMC ruling earlier this year, but the medical body last week won its appeal against blanket immunity for expert witnesses.

Finlay Scott, chief executive of the General Medical Council, which regulates the medical profession, said: "It cannot be in the public interest if doctors are deterred from giving evidence, honestly and truthfully, and within their competence.

"It is important that the public has confidence in doctors who give evidence in court proceedings."

Care Services minister Ivan Lewis said the proposed changes were important.

"For the sake of the vulnerable children and families whose future depends on legal judgements, we must secure the best possible medical expertise."

However Tom Magner of the Society of Expert Witnesses said: "This misses the fundamental point. You can set up a body or a panel.

"But, unless the fundamental concerns of experts over things like the GMC's victory in the Appeal Court last week are addressed, experts aren't going to come forward and act as witnesses."




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